The Importance of Being Earnest vs Dr Faustus: Compare & Contrast

The Importance of Being Earnest vs Dr Faustus: Compare & Contrast
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Hypocrisy is a social issue that exists in all periods of human history.  It is also a popular subject for authors and artists, even those whose work is not explicitly satirical.  Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus both address the issue of hypocrisy in some form.  While both are critical of hypocrisy, the two plays focus on it very differently. In The Importance of Being Earnest, hypocrisy is the central theme; Wilde skewers Victorian morality and Victorian reality with every scene.  In Dr. Faustus, Marlowe does not make the issue quite as central to the play and is much more subtle in his dealings with the vice.  However, despite their differences, both plays point out the unwillingness of man to accept his own follies, as well as his willingness to find the follies of others.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, hypocrisy is the central theme.  Wilde uses the characters’ dialogue and actions to highlight the differences between the morals of Victorian England and the actions performed by those who supposedly subscribe to those morals.  Both Algernon and Jack talk of the impropriety of what the other is doing, while seemingly blind to their own departures from the same values they espouse for others.  This is true for the other major characters as well: Algernon’s aunt, Cecily, and Gwendolen all show some level of hypocrisy.

In Marlowe’s Faustus, the learned doctor after whom the play is named is a hypocrite on several levels.  What he does with his ill-gotten powers falls far short of his grandiose goals, and he does not seem to care, or even realize, that this is the case.  Faustus also comments several times on the negative trains on others, without apparently noticing that he himself exhibits many of the same traits.  Although hypocrisy is not as central an issue in the play, it is unarguably there.

In both plays, characters freely point out other characters’ bad behavior, while refusing to acknowledge their own. The Importance of Being Earnest, the dialogue between Jack and Algernon in Act I of the play is a good example of this.  Jack says that Algernon is “hardly serious enough” (Wilde, 1990, p. 6) to understand his motives for pretending to have a young brother, when in fact his own motives are identical to Algernon’s for having Bunbury.  Algernon, on the other hand, says that Jack’s flirtation with Gwendolen is “perfectly disgraceful,” despite the way he carries on later with Cecily.  (Wilde, 1990, p. 2)  In Doctor Faustus, the doctor comments that the demonic form of Mephistophilis is “too ugly” to serve him.  (Marlowe,1994. p. 16)   He later tells lechery and the other sins to go back to Hell, even though he admits to being “wanton and lascivious, / And cannot live without a wife.” (Marlowe, 1994, p. 23)  However, he does not seem to see anything wrong with these two contradictory statements.

The actions of the various characters in both plays usually contradict their statements as well.  This is in part coupled with the previous point, as the characters cannot contradict their statements without voicing their opinions first.  However, there are differences in how the two plays approach this.  Algernon and Jack are, again, the best examples of this in The Importance of Being Earnest; their actions as “Bunburyists” who wear a different personality in town and in the country are distinctly at odds with their speeches of morality.  In this play, though, there is a very rapid turn-about between the characters’ words and their actions.  Indeed, Jack has already proven his own lack of seriousness when he accuses Algernon of this very shortcoming (Wilde, 1990, p.6).  This is different from Doctor Faustus, where Faustus’ actions slowly contradict his words over the course of the entire play.  His lofty proclamation that he will “chase the Prince of Parma from our land,

 And reign sole king of all the provinces;” (Marlowe, 1993, p. 16) do not match up at all with his actions.  When he finally gets the power he desired, he uses it largely to make a fool of the pope (Marlowe, 1994, p. 33) and other petty things. 

The impact that hypocrisy has on the important characters also differs in the two plays.  In Wilde’s farce, everybody basically has a happy ending.  Despite the fact that they have been living double-lives the entire time, through twist after twist Wilde reveals that Jack has in fact been inadvertently telling the truth the entire time, something for which he apologizes to Gwendolen, who forgives him. (Wilde, 1990, p.54)  In the end, then, Wilde piles satire on top of satire, as it turns out that his characters are only able to have a happy ending because of their very hypocrisy.  This is because Wilde’s focus is not on telling a moral tale, but on getting Victorians to realize how much their own society makes use of these same double-standards.  Marlowe’s Faustus gets no such happy ending.  Faustus repents too late and is dragged down to Hell by devils.  A hypocrite to the end, he still sees Hell as “ugly,” and makes feeble claims that he will “burn his books” if Mephistophilis will let him go free. (Marlowe, 1994, p. 56)

While the ending, and indeed the overall tone, of these two plays, are very different from one another, both plays nonetheless focus on hypocrisy.  However, what the two playwrights do with the characters and their double standards is very different.  Wilde’s two would-be Earnests are ultimately redeemed, although through no work of their own.  Faustus, on the other hand, is sent screaming down to Hell, although it is certainly not for hypocrisy alone that he is sent there.  Regardless, the fact that this moral issue can be found even in such different plays as these two shows that it is one that shows up in almost any time period.

References:

Marlowe, Christopher. (1994).  Doctor Faustus. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Wilde, Oscar. (1990).  The importance of being earnest.  New York: Dover Publications, Inc.